Stage is set for red-hot Knights and league-leading Rebels Friday Night
For the second-straight year, the Knights will travel to Aston, Pennsylvania for a best-of-five, first-round Robertson Cup playoff matchup with the Rebels. The latter finished with the league’s best record at 46-11-3, while the Knights improved on their inaugural season with a winning record of 30-25-5.
To a certain extent, tomorrow night will provide the Knights with an opportunity to conquer past demons. After splitting last year’s head-to-head with the Rebels at eight wins apiece (regular season) the Knights were swept out of the postseason by Aston in the first round of the 2015-16 Robertson Cup Playoffs.
This year the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton struggles continued against the Rebels, dropping the season series in a 9-3 tilt. The Aston IceWorks-the location of at least games one and two of this series-has been a particular sore spot for the Knights. In 17 trips over their first two seasons in the NAHL they hold a 4-13 record. In the six games hosted by Aston in 2016-17 the Knights were outscored 24-7 and shut out three times. They went just 1-5 in that stretch. Despite all of this, it would be a mistake to write the visitors off entering this weekend’s action.
Over their past ten games, the Knights have played some of their best hockey of the season, a stretch that was kicked off by a shootout win in Aston on March 10th. Since then, they closed out the season on a 7-2-1 tear, the third best record in the NAHL in that span and even better than Aston’s 6-3-1 record over that same period.
“We’ve been playing some solid hockey lately,” said head coach Tom Kowal. “It’s not perfect, but we’ve been getting better. We’ve had success and our offense has picked it up. We’ve been able to score and to win against some good teams.”
Since beating the Rebels in their first game of March, the Knights offense has led the way, averaging impressive 3.8 goals per game.
“We have guys up and down the roster starting to show up more regularly in the scoresheet,” said Kowal. “That’s really important at this time of year. You need your biggest point producers to show up to go anywhere in the playoffs.”
In the closing weeks of the regular season, the Knights were spurred on by a healthy balance between the usual suspects and secondary scorers elevating their production.
Matt Kidney was the East Division’s final star of the week for 2016-17 season, rounding out his season on a still-active five-game point streak. The Knights first round pick scored five goals and two assists in the last three games of the year, capped off by a hat trick on Monday.
Mike Gelatt has averaged just over a point a game since the first game of March (3-8-11, 10 GP), while Paul Maust (1-7-8, 9 GP), Mike Morrissey (2-6-8, 9 GP), and Sam Antonitsch (2-7-9, 10 GP) all came one point shy of accomplishing the same. Vince Marino’s four goals and three helpers, Reed Robinson’s two tallies and five assists and Adrian Danchenko’s active three-game point streak (one goal, two assists) have led the vital auxiliary scoring.
Perhaps the most stark turnaround was the performance of the team’s power play. In those ten games the Knights-who had been stuck at the very bottom of the league in power play success rate-converted 12 of their final 40 opportunities, a staggering 30 percent conversion rate.
“Our power play has picked up,” said Kowal. “We’ve found a better balance of passing and taking good shots. We’re not just cycling for effect. We’re making teams move their feet and chase us and the results are speaking for themselves.”
Given the opponent next on tap for the Knights, taking advantage of any Aston mistakes can’t be overstated. On the season, the Rebels held the league’s best penalty kill, shutting down 86.3% of their opponents’ chances. The Knights will counter with a power play that finished at an 18.3% success rate overall, a few ticks higher than what they accomplished against the Rebels in the regular season; six goals in 37 tries, or 16.2%.
Beyond the limiting catalog of high-volume scorers the Rebels bring to the ice each night, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Knights will be solving stalwart goalie Mareks Mitens. The recent Lake Superior State commitment and member of Latvia’s National U20 team, Mitens was stellar against the Knights all season. In nine starts he held a 7-2 record, receiving losses in only his first and final matchups of the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In that stretch he stopped just under 95% of shots sent his way and recorded a goals against average of 1.24.
The Knights will have to do better than the 24 shots a game they averaged against Mitens throughout the year. Without question, one of Aston’s greatest assets is the versatility of their blue line. Not only do they boast the league’s third and fourth ranked scoring defensemen in Gvido Jansons and Brennan Kapcheck, but they also do a tremendous job of stymying forechecks and keeping their netminder clean.
“It’s something we’ve stressed in in playing them in the past,” said Kowal. “We have to be able to control the perimeter. We can’t let them push us wide in the offensive zone and we can’t surrender the middle of the ice to them in ours.”
Too often in the losses to the Rebels, it felt as if the game was following the same script: an early score by Aston bolstered by the Wilkes-Barre offense being repelled time and time again by a near perfect Aston backcheck. With little time established in the offensive zone, the Knights would be caught chasing the puck back to their own end where eventually the Rebels would find space from which to score.
Peppering Mitens is not the only requirement for victory, but it’s a strong first step. He’s allowed four goals in each of his last two starts, a rare hiccup in the road for the NAHL’s leader in wins (31), goals against (1.63) and shutouts (11).
Much of what determines the rest of the matchup relies on the Knights 6th-ranked offense (3.22 goals per game) and red hot power play keeping their momentum against the NAHL’s best defense and penalty kill. Aston allowed the fewest goals of any team this season, surrendering just 106 in 60 games, good for a GAA of 1.77. No other team had a mark under 2.00.
Across the ice from Mitens will stand Grant Valentine, one of the NAHL’s premiere workhorse goalies over the past two seasons. Fresh off his own division one commitment to Miami of Ohio, Valentine, who was fourth in the league in minutes (2403) and games (42) played, 10th in wins (20), and 5th in shutouts (3) will need to have his A-game to the playoffs. Against an Aston team that ranked fourth in the league in goals scored with 214, Valentine and the Knights defense collectively struggled as he was able to win just two of eight starts against the Rebels.
His most recent performance against Aston was very likely his best, which came in the aformentinoed Knights shootout win in Aston on March 10th. In the victory, Valentine stopped 25 of 27 shots on goal and stoned three of four Rebels in the shootout. While the mandate extends to all 20 players dressed tomorrow, that kind of defensive effort will be necessary moving forward into the postseason.
“We know we’re playing a good team in this opening round,” said Kowal. “We think we’re a good team. It’s up to us to prove it. We had a nice finish to the regular season but that’s behind us now. In a best of five series there’s no room for error. We have to hit the ground running. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
Knights-Rebels Playoff Schedule Round 1:
Game 1: Friday, April 14th, 2017: @Aston IceWorks 7:00 PM
Game 2: Saturday, April 15th, 2017: @Aston IceWorks 7:00 PM
Game 3: Friday, April 21st, 2017: @Revolution Ice Centre, 7:30 PM
Game 4*: Saturday, April 22nd, 2017: @Revolution Ice Centre, 7:30 PM
Game 5*: Monday, April 24th, 2017: @Aston IceWorks, 7:00 PM